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As he did with his previous feature, “The Matador,” writer-director Richard Shepard assembles all the elements for a dark suspense comedy only to lose his way in a surfeit of plot mechanics and unlikely behavior. There’s a potentially funny political story in “The Hunting Party” about war criminals that the United Nations, NATO and the U.S. all say they want to find but really don’t. Unfortunately, Shepard’s approach takes the movie into Jason Bourne territory and away from the black comedy he seemingly wants to make, making the film fall between the cracks in terms of boxoffice appeal.
Richard Gere and Terrence Howard make an excellent pair of conflict journalists who get off on the adrenaline rush of war zones. And Jesse Eisenberg of “The Squid and the Whale” comes along as a very young stooge/sidekick. The secondary characters, a few based on real-life hard cases in Bosnia and Serbia, are nothing if not colorful. Meanwhile, the production takes terrific advantage of the war-torn city of Sarajevo and the middle-of-nowhere look of the treacherous mountains nearby, where a war criminal can easily hide. So the movie’s surfaces are wickedly alive, giving MGM and the Weinstein Co. plenty to market.
Gere and Howard play the aptly named Hunt and Duck, a TV news reporter and cameraman, respectively, who have dashed through the world’s worst war zones, from Somalia to El Salvador. Hunt is forever on the hunt for hot action footage, while cameraman Duck must duck all the bullets and explosions coming at him as a consequence. Then, in Bosnia, in a village brutally ravaged by ethnic cleansing, Hunt suffers an on-camera meltdown during a live feed on network television.
Five years later, Duck, on a quickie assignment to Sarajevo with anchor Franklin Harris (James Brolin), meets up with Hunt, reduced to peddling stories to whomever will buy. Hunt dangles a major exclusive in front of Duck: He knows where a Bosnian Serb war criminal known as the Fox is hiding. Eventually, Duck bites, so along with rookie reporter Benjamin (Eisenberg), the son of a network exec, the three go on a Fox hunt.
And here is where the story goes astray. On a mountain road in a stolen vehicle, Hunt makes it clear that he aims not to interview the Fox but to capture him. With suspense music worthy of the next James Bond film to encourage them, the trio assume the guise of CIA agents and eventually start to believe in that identity. But unlike a Bond or Bourne movie, which slams from A to B to C to D, this hunting party goes from A to B and back to A again. Wild goose chases and dead ends introduce a host of rustic villains but serve only to alert the Fox to their presence. And would these war vets be foolish enough to talk loudly in restaurants about their plans so that all may hear?
Shepard insists that the quest is personal for Hunt. The Fox’s men murdered his pregnant girlfriend in that village, and he means to “wipe that smile off his face.” Which is OK if that’s the story you want to tell, but there goes any comedy. The movie is now a revenge melodrama filled with lame comedic moments that work against the suspense. Shepard actually does a good job of pumping up these suspense sequences, yet the repeated 11th hour rescues stretch credibility beyond the breaking point.
There is credibility, though, in Gere’s burned-out case, who looks haggard even after a good night’s sleep and maintains a simmering frenzy that borders on true insanity. Howard, on the other hand, looks too well rested, having traded war zones for a cushy job in New York. Back in Bosnia, he comes alive again. Eisenberg gets a few laughs as a scared Harvard grad over his head in the real world, but the film goes to that well once too often.
Production values are terrific, especially David Tattersall’s cinematography and Jan Roelfs’ production design. They conspire to make Bosnia still look like a very scary place.
THE HUNTING PARTY
The Weinstein Co. presentsa QED International/Intermedia production
Screenwriter-director: Richard Shepard
Based on an article by: Scott Anderson
Producers: Mark Johnson, Scott Kroopf
Executive producers: Adam Merims, Bill Block
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Music: Rolfe Kent
Costume designer: Beatrix Pasztor
Editor: Carole Kravetz-Aykanian
Simon Hunt: Richard Gere
Duck: Terrence Howard
Benjamin: Jesse Eisenberg
Franklin Harris: James Brolin
Fox: Ljubomir Kerekes
Magda: Kristina Krepela
Mirjana: Diane Kruger
Duck’s Girlfriend: Joy Bryant
Running time — 104 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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